Aren’t Vocal Booths Overrated!
We are all looking for that “magic” vocal sound.
Anyone who has recorded vocals before knows that getting a magic tone is not as easy as simply tossing an expensive condenser microphone in front of a singer and hitting the record button.
There are several factors that separate us home recording guys from the big studio guys. (The huge console, the thick walls, acoustic treatment, and vocal booths).
We are going to focus on the latter today. This article will explain both the advantages and disadvantages of using a vocal booth in your home recording studio.
Use A Vocal Booth For Isolation
Probably the biggest reason to get a hold of a vocal booth is isolation. For example, I was reading in EQ Magazine about how the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded their last album at Rick Rubin’s living room. (I’m not sure I would call this “home recording” necessarily”).
They wanted this album to have a much more “live” feel than some of their other records. They wanted to sound like a band playing as a unit in the room without a dependency on overdubs.
For the singer, Anthony Kiedis, they brought in one of those portable vocal booths that you always see advertised in the back of recording magazines.
Why? Well, because the drummer was about 10 feet away! There would be more drum sound in that microphone than there would be vocal sound even when considering the cardioid pattern of the Shure SM7 microphone.
In order to keep out not only the pounding drums but also the bass and guitar, they elected to use a vocal booth right there in the middle of the room.
This made it easy to keep the live vocal. This also makes it easy to do overdubs. You see, when you record with lots of bleeds into your vocal mic (which certainly can be a good thing)and then want to overdub a few words (no bleed, the band already went home) it is sometimes a noticeable change. Using the vocal booth allowed them flexibility.
Of course, if you do not record keeper vocals during drum tracking, this won’t help you much. If you are working with singers who require a lot more producing / coaching, the odds of keeping a live take are slim. I’ve only done one project where I recorded a band live in the studio where we kept all the live vocals. Most singers aren’t up to this level.
Use Vocal Booths To Impress Ignorant Clients
Yes, that’s right. There will be people who want to tour your studio. I never gave studio tours. If a person wanted to record with me, they could hear everything on the website that I had done.
If they think/thought that how a studio looked had much of an impact to the sound, they are not the people I want to work with, generally. Granted, there is a “vibe factor” that I’m aware of.
You certainly feel different when looking out of a helicopter than you do sitting on the toilet. The same applies to the studio a little bit.
However, for most of the bands, I was working with, “vibe factor” was out of the budget and they were looking for sound quality.
Some people get a little confused. They think a vocal booth is somehow a prerequisite for getting a pro vocal sound. This is NOT the case. Watch a few DVDs with the bands in the studio. Pay attention to how many bands actually use a vocal booth for vocals. It’s a very low number. We’ll get into those reasons here in a minute.
From a business standpoint, sometimes you need to have names like “Pro Tools” and often unnecessary gimmicks like “vocal booths” for a person to fork over the big money to record. In this case, vocal booths seem to help with making future clients feel confident.
Vocal Booth Acoustics
If you’ve done any research into acoustics at all, you know that tiny rooms are often a nightmare for recording just about anything.
A small room has early reflections that blend in way too closely with the direct tone and have a way of destroying the tone of the vocals. Granted, the big boy studios have spent zillions on the vocal booth’s acoustic treatment to reduce the boxiness found in a vocal booth. This usually makes them okay.
Of course, I’ve spoken with plenty of engineers who work in pro studios every day who HATE the sound of vocal booths. So just keep in mind that vocal booths have a sound. It’s up to you to decide if that sound fits the vocal sound you are going for in a project.
Also remember, that vocals are often heavily compressed. Compression will suck the room into the microphone. If you are tracking vocals in the right room, this can be a great thing.
If you are tracking vocals in a not so great room, this is a horrible thing! The sound of your vocal booth will be much more obvious when you crank up the compression.
So keep in mind that it’s extremely important to properly treat a vocal booth acoustically. If you don’t believe me, pull out your clothes and try tracking some vocals in your closet. I’d be surprised if you like the sound!
Simply putting a singer into some tiny, untreated room will be a disaster. Do not do it!!
Vocal Booth Prison
Did the baby sitter ever tell you to sit in the closet for 8 hours after you were misbehaving? No? Me neither.
However, imagine if she did! You’d still be in therapy today.
So why do we ask singers to lock themselves in closets for 8 hours at a time? The only thing that matters in a vocal is properly expressing the emotion of the song. Nothing else! So why would we lock a person into some tiny little room?
It seems more like a punishment than an inspirational move! Just keep in mind that as a producer, you are looking to squeeze something magical out of your singers. You have to push them and pull them to make them feel comfortable enough to give it their all.
It just seems ridiculous to me that you’d attempt to do this while simultaneously locking your singer in a closet.
This kind of reminds me of that scene in Swordfish where Hugh Jackman (the Wolverine guy) had to hack into something with a gun to his head and a girl doing stuff to him. Why put the gun to your singers head? Well……actually that thought has crossed my mind a few hundred times!!
Just in case you do record a singer who was locked in his closet at an early age, there may be a chance he/she is totally content with closets and even likes them. If you can use a closet to get you closer to where you want to go, use it!
Also, keep in mind that one of the easiest ways to record great vocal takes is with the singer in the control room. I’ve done this a ton of times. I often like it!
You can really get personal with the singer. You are not yelling or talking back through some talkback microphone and headphones. You are communicating one on one. This won’t work well for all singers, but for some, it’s the only way.
Why I Don’t Have Any Need to Build A Vocal Booth
First of all my “live room” isn’t all that big, to begin with. 10’x12’x8′. So in some ways, it’s not much bigger than some big studio vocal booths.
Of course, there are vocal booths are much smaller than that! So, maybe the fact that I already have a small room is reason enough to not need a vocal booth. Either way, the size of my room now is comfortable. It’s certainly not spacious, but it is cozy.
People don’t feel too enclosed while singing in it. To me, the most important thing is providing a space where the singer can open up. I want them to feel comfortable doing what they do.
From an engineering standpoint, I can get anything I want with a few sheets of Rockwool, blankets, and a few mic stands. I don’t have to build a vocal booth for this.
I like being able to get flexible with vocal tone if needed. A vocal booth is stuck that way for better or worse. It’s very easy to knock down reflections in a live room.
Price is another consideration. For the price of a vocal booth that won’t get used all that often, I can buy a high-end microphone, preamp, or compressor. Actually, for that kind of money, I can take a vacation or go on a cruise or something.
There are certainly benefits to using vocal booths sometimes. If the singer likes a vocal booth, get him/her a vocal booth. If you need lots of isolation because you are tracking live vocals, you’ll need a vocal booth. However, that’s about the extent of it.